Can you legislate for love? The Government’s plans for children’s social care aims to

Ambitiously titled “Children's social care: Stable Homes, Built on Love” the Department for Education has published its response and an implementation strategy after Josh McAlister’s review of Children’s Social Care and two other children’s social care reviews.

Children’s social care extends to children cared for away from their parental home in foster care, kinship care and residential homes, as well as children who are “at risk” in their own homes. It is also there to ensure disabled children and their families get the additional care support they need to thrive. None of it has been going well for a very long time.

This is an extensive and comprehensive piece of work over more than 200 pages, so you will forgive us for not having read every word yet.

However, as we are specifically concerned with disabled children, we have read the bits where disabled children are specifically mentioned (35 times). Much in the report will also be relevant, but today we’re just giving the headlines as a springboard. There is also a version that is written for young people, though not an easy read version. You can find this here

What is the report in response to?

This report and its three consultations are the Government’s response to three reviews in 2022:

  1. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care  
  2. The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel review following the tragic deaths of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes
  3. The Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) Children’s Social Care market study 2022

What are the headlines?

This report and strategy sets out six “pillars of reform”, mapped to the outcomes within a new Children’s Social Care National Framework and Dashboard. It comes with £200 million of additional investment over the next two years. (There are two virtual consultation events in February and March you can register for.)

The six pillars or “ambitions” as described in the young person’s version, are below. The links take you to the relevant section of the young person’s version):

  1. Family Help to “provide the right support at the right time so that children can thrive with their families” This includes, making changes to support for disabled children including by reviewing how the law works (see more on this below)
  2. Keeping children safe with “A decisive multi-agency child protection system” This includes
    • testing a new Child Protection Lead Practitioner role and consulting on new National Multi-Agency Child Protection Standards Strengthen multi-agency leadership.
    • Bringing more clarity to who should be doing what within local authorities, police and health on child protection, and “more robust and effective accountability…”
    • Speeding up family courts for children removed from their homes and improving parental enagagement.
  3. Supporting families to help children “Unlocking the potential of family networks” to enable wider family and friends to care for children who can’t live at home. This includes a Kinship Care strategy and £9 million of kinship carer training.
  4. Make care better for children in care and care leavers: “Putting love, relationships and a stable home at the heart of being a child in care” This means transforming provision of homes for children, “so they are the right homes in the right places”, and being “ambitious for children in care and care leavers - to help them recover, thrive and achieve their potential into adulthood.”
  5. Children have great social workers: “A valued, supported and highly skilled social worker for every child who needs one” This means recruiting more social workers and keeping them in post with high-quality career development
  6. Improving the whole system for children and families: “A system that continuously learns and improves, and makes better use of evidence and data.” This means improving accountability, inspection, funding and regulation. The Government intends
    • to introduce a Children’s Social Care National Framework and Dashboard, setting out required outcomes children’s social care should deliver, including guides to the best evidenced approaches
    • Publishing a data strategy by the end of the year, setting out a long-term plan for transforming data in children’s social care.
    • Ensuring Ofsted “rebalances” how it looks at practice, to ensure it acts as a lever for improvement in line with the reforms.
    • Funding for local authorities based on an up-to-date assessment of needs and resources with a new DfE formula for children and young people’s services funding provided to local authorities.

Josh McAlister put forward more than 80 proposals including early help for families, better support for foster and kinship carers, and introducing an early career pathway for children’s social workers. We were not especially impressed with the content for disabled children, many of whom find it hard to even get a social care assessment, not least when it’s part of an Education, Health and Care needs assessment.

What is of specific interest for disabled children and their families?

Some quotes from the report:

“We have heard from families about the difficulties they face when trying to access social care support for their disabled child’s needs. We recognise that caring for a disabled child is not always easy and that sometimes parents and carers need additional help and support.

“We also recognise that some children with complex needs require specialist care and support, which must be joined up across social care, education and health.

Caring for a disabled child is NEVER easy. A key issue has always been that social care departments aren’t good at distinguishing between social care for child protection and social care for disabled children.  

The main news here is the acceptance of a recommendation for a Law Commission to “look at the patchwork of outdated legislation which leads both to variation in the services provided and to confusing, often safeguarding-focused routes to accessing support. This will mean entitlements, referral routes and processes are clearer for families and local authorities”

The report says will start as soon as possible, to ensure policies and changes make SEND and social care easier to access and navigate.

“We will look again at assessment processes and the way information is shared across Children’s Social Care (CSC), SEND and schools, as well as the relationship between multiagency panels, multi-agency safeguarding partners and the new NHS Integrated Care Boards, to make sure that these bodies connect in a sensible way.”

The report makes reference to the SEND and AP Green Paper implementation plans that we are still waiting for, including the proposed new national standards that are, “intended to set consistent expectations of how a child’s needs are identified and met by support and placements at every stage of their journey across education, health and care. This includes consistent provision, processes and systems across the country for every child and young person with special educational needs or disabilities, or in alternative provision.”

So it looks like “national standards” are still in the SEND plan, even though it’s worth pointing out again, that we already have a law for this in the Children and Families Act and its SEND Code of Practice that LAs consistently manage to ignore– so our question is, how are they going to ensure these new plans are any different?

The only place an EHCP is mentioned is within a case study that underlines how far parents have to go to get support – in this case to seek intervention with their LA from the Children’s Commissioner’s office. I’m not sure what the point of its inclusion is.

Action on Ethnic Disparities

One positive is the intention to,

“change how children’s social care works with families to help address ethnic disparities and material deprivation.”

“We will seek to address the ethnic disparities highlighted by the Care Review that exist in current family support services. Pathfinder areas will bring Family Help closer to communities, by designing services based on their needs and by listening to what they need. This will help demonstrate how a different way of working can build culturally competent practice. We will ensure that all research commissioned by DfE on family support includes a specific focus on the experience of children and families from ethnic minority backgrounds. Inspection will also consider how effectively the wishes, feelings and perspectives of children and families who interact with services are reflected in the work with and decision-making for children and families. We will encourage sharing good practice on embedding culturally competent practice among practitioners.”

These changes are sorely needed and we hope that SNJ’s expert Intersectionality Panel and our report from last year into Race and SEND will be included.

Using data to improve practice

Within the new Children’s Social Care National Framework, the Government pledges to, “provide greater national direction so practitioners will be able to improve the quality of provision and response for disabled children.” And use the data from their new dashboards to “include indicators for disabled children to track their experiences through the social care system.”

They promise that early this year they will host a joint Children’s Social Care and SEND roundtable on disability, where we will work with sector experts to make these commitments a reality. Let’s hope voices like ours are among those invited to join this as it is an area that SNJ Director, Renata, for one, has considerable experience and expertise.

Disabled children in residential settings

Improving safeguarding, planning and running of disabled children in residential settings is also under review with a proposal for Regional Care Cooperatives (RCCs). 

Once fully established with the costs of care reduced by pooling resources and expertise, RCCs will be better equipped to provide more residential care homes for those children with the most complex needs. DfE will work with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to understand what the RCC model might mean for children in all forms of secure care, including those in the health and justice systems. Where children require an inpatient mental health service, there should be strong multi-agency arrangements to ensure that they are supported during their stay and return to the community. This will reduce the chances that children, including disabled children, will need to live far from home in order to receive the care they need.”

The response points to, “The culture of abuse identified at the Hesley Group Children’s Homes is a significant cause for concern, and we are taking urgent action to respond.” This includes strengthening the relevant standards and regulations for children in care and in residential special schools. It also aims to strengthen Ofsted’s powers to hold private, voluntary and charity providers to account.

This response is ambitious and recognises many of the issues to be tackled. How its intentions will be put into practice is another story. It will take money – lots and lots of it—and a lot of people to come forward to train as social workers. Where they are going to find either are, as yet, unanswered questions.

Respond to the consultation(s)

If, as the parent of a disabled child who uses social care, you want to answer the consultation (links at the end), the Key consultation questions are 8 (p26), 9 (p51) and 10 (p156)

  • 8: What more can be done by government, local authorities and service providers to make sure that disabled children and young people can access the right types of help and support?
  • 9: To what extent are you supportive of the proposal for a system that brings together targeted early help and child in need into a single Family Help Service in local areas?
  • 31: Do you have any overall comments about the potential impact, whether positive or negative, of our proposed changes on children’s rights?

The strategy is open for consultation until 11 May, in addition to another consultation on a “Children’s Social Care National Framework and Dashboard.”

  1. Stable Homes, Built on Love: Implementation Strategy and Consultation.
  2. A Children’s Social Care National Framework and Dashboard
  3. Proposals for the child and family social worker workforce

Also read:

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Tania Tirraoro
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